From the Library: the future, the past, and the 1990s

These three books took me from western, to central, to eastern Canada. And from the future, to the past, to almost the present (the 1990s). I loved them all.

Greenwood by Michael Christie (Random House)

I’m so happy I finally read this book. I’ve been wanting to read it since it came out, and have had it out from the library a couple of times. What finally did it was the course my daughter is taking at university called Ecofiction of the Forest. This is one of the books on their reading list, along with The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and Barkskins by Annie Proulx.

Greenwood’s story starts in the year 2038 and works backward every 30-40 years until 1908, then works its way forward again, ending in 2038. It traces the history of Jacinda (Jake) Greenwood’s roots, a nature guide at one of the last remaining stands of old growth forest on Greenwood Island, British Columbia.

I loved the scope of this book and the deep delve into the characters. I loved that Jake’s history is not straight-forward. And I love the choices Jake makes in the end.

That’s all I’m going to say about it, because it’s already 3 days overdue – it’s suddenly popular again since becoming a finalist for 2023 Canada Reads. But I will leave you with a few of my favourite passages…

The paper itself is the colour of roasted almonds, but has a sturdiness to it, born of a time when trees were an inexhaustible resource, limitless in number. A time when a person soaked up a spill with a whole roll of paper towels, or printed her entire thesis one-sided… on a fat stack of snow-white loose-leaf.

In my experience, artists often elect to ignore the ironclad fact that without the aid of my lumber they’d be freezing in the dark with nothing to read but the anguish on their children’s hypothermic faces. Shakespeare himself would have been a shivering loon writing on the walls of a damp cave with his own urine if it weren’t for men like me.

…for a dizzy, drunken moment, Harris pities the trees. Especially for the trusting way they declare themselves to the world with their grand upward reach. At least gold and oil have the common sense to hide.

…maybe trees do have souls. Which makes wood a kind of flesh. And perhaps instruments of wooden construction sound so pleasing to our ears for this reason: the choral shimmer of a guitar; the heartbeat thump of drums; the mournful wail of violins–we love them because they sound like us.

At times she’ll imagine that the cyclone had assembled an entirely new book up there in the sky if only for a fleeting instant–pages of Dickens, Austen, Dante, Eliot, Tolstoy all mingling freely, forming the greatest book the world has ever known.

…even after you cut a piece of wood and lay it straight, it lives on after you’re finished, soaking up moisture, twisting, bowing, and warping into unintended forms. Our lives are no different.

In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas (Random House)

I had seen enough to know that behind every glorious thing is a whole mess of trouble.

It’s the mid-19th century and Lensinda is a writer/reporter who works for a Black publication and lives in Dunmore, a Canadian town settled by people escaping enslavement south of the border. One night a slave hunter is killed by a runaway slave who is taken to prison in nearby Chatham. It is Sinda’s job to travel to Chatham to speak with the old woman to learn her story before she is condemned. “…there is an opportunity to set a precedent that affirms that actions such as yours… are justified. Such a precedent would stoke a very necessary dread in the souls of all those who would hold coloured men captive.

But the woman refuses to speak plainly. Instead she wants a story for a story, resulting in an intricate tale of the older woman’s history entwined with the shorter anecdotes of the younger woman, and the realization of the connection the two women share.

I haven’t read a story about enslavement and the underground railroad in several years, so I fell right into this interesting story, its characters, and the unique set-up of a story-for-a-story.

Another way this book stood out from others is the inclusion of the Indigenous peoples of North America, both above and below what is now the border between Canada and the US, and how they worked and lived together with the African-American population.

We must share the stories that haven’t been shared, in order to bring healing to our world. –Kai Thomas

A very satisfying novel that comes to a powerful end.

Freedom is never absolute, it seems, and therefore escape, despite what they tell you, yields no final destination.

Freedom, you can’t get and bury, and keep it so it won’t ever go away. No, child. You got to swing your freedom like a club.

Our rage is a bridge to peace.

The Raw Light of Morning by Shelly Kawaja (Breakwater Books)

I thought this book was so real and powerful. The themes of the book are a reality for far too many people, and while reading it I realized I haven’t read a whole lot of books like this one. The best review I saw on Goodreads simply says, “Wow. Yes sir.”

Sometimes, the strongest, most extraordinary things grow in the hardest places.

Fourteen-year-old Laurel lives down a long, rural road outside of Stephenville, Newfoundland with her mother and little brother. Her father died of cancer a few years ago and her mother has a new boyfriend. Whenever Rick comes around, Laurel hides in her room. One night, things get violent and the unimaginable happens.

Laurel and her family are moved into government housing in Stephenville and enter into a cycle of poverty that they can’t get themselves out of. (“Stephenville felt a bit like an American frontier town that had gotten lost at sea and come ashore in western Newfoundland.“) Laurel feels responsible for the care of her much younger siblings, as well as–sometimes–her mother. She falls into too much partying with her friends until a teacher convinces her that getting an education is her only way out of the system. But she still has a long way to go to process and cope with the trauma she experienced in her past, and she’s going to have to accept that she won’t be able to do it alone.

You need to love the dark parts too, Laurel. You need to love the dark parts most of all.

I love Laurel’s relationship with her younger siblings. A scene that jumped out at me was of the family on the couch watching The Lion King the night after Bud’s cat had died and Laurel frantically leaping up off the couch to fast-forward Mufasa getting trampled by the wildebeests.

And her mother’s love of the Encyclopoedia Britannica…

Her mother would love this. The web was like the Encyclopoedia Brittanica on steroids…

Photo by Pixabay on

What have you been reading from the library recently?


20 thoughts on “From the Library: the future, the past, and the 1990s

  1. Marianne Ward says:

    Your daughter’s course is one I would take if I could–what a great collection of books! After reading The Overstory some years ago (and declaring it my desert island book), I set out to read similar books that explore our relationship with trees. I read both Greenwood and Barkskins at that time, as well as the wonderful Forest for Calum by Cape Breton’s Frank MacDonald. I’ve put The Word for World is Forest on hold at the library, thanks to your post.

    I’m currently reading Ann Patchett’s essay collection, These Precious Days from the library, and I just recently returned Emma Donoghue’s Haven. I love my library!

    • Naomi says:

      So many of my daughter’s courses have sounded so good, but this one really stood out. I thought of you when she told me about it! I’m glad you have another tree book for your list! Another great one she’s taking right now is Queer CanLit – there’s a lot of good books in that course, too!

      I listened to These Precious Days on audio and loved it. Haven is still on the list!

      Thanks for commenting, Marianne! 🙂

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    Your daughter’s university class sounds amazing. I’ve wondered how Greenwood compares to The Overstory. That structure is very interesting. A related novel I read fairly recently was Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.

  3. Laura says:

    Oh, Ecofiction of the Forest sounds amazing! I loved The Overstory and I really enjoyed The Word for World… and Greenwood as well. (I did wish that the long early C20th chunk had been a bit shorter, as I wanted more of the other generations, especially Jake). I’ll have to check out Barkskins!

    • Naomi says:

      It sounds like you could join right into the course – just one book left!
      Greenwood is one of the finalists for Canada Reads this year which is taking place this week. Yesterday was day one, and one of the panelists said exactly what you did – that she wished the part about Jake had been longer and the part in the middle shorter. I’m curious to see how far it goes!

      • Laura says:

        Oh that’s really interesting to hear – thank you for passing it on! I just found Jake such a compelling character.

      • Naomi says:

        Greenwood was voted off today for various reasons, most of them tiny little reasons. Usually the reasons are tiny, because all the books are always so great – you never really know which way it’s going to go. Often it’s more about how well the book’s defender can argue for it to stay on.

  4. Sarah Emsley says:

    These all sound intriguing—thank you! I thought of Marianne as soon as I saw your reference to The Overstory. I still haven’t read that one, either, but would love to read it, along with Greenwood. The most recent book I picked up from the library is Shawna Lemay’s Rumi and the Red Handbag, and the most recent request I placed was for Tessa Hadley’s novel The Past.

    • Naomi says:

      Are you re-reading Rumi and the Red Handbag? I should put that on hold right now while I’m thinking of it. Did you know I have exactly 52 holds placed at the library right now? What’s one more? 🙂
      I also want to read The Overstory, as well as a couple of his other books.

      • Sarah Emsley says:

        I was tempted to re-read the whole thing, but yesterday I returned the book to the library, partly because there are so many other books I’m reading right now, and partly because I want to buy a copy of my own anyway, and I’d like to reread it with a pencil in hand, the way I read Everything Affects Everyone a couple of weeks ago. If you do read it, I’ll be interested to hear what you think!

        52—wow! I have 10 on hold at the moment.

      • Naomi says:

        Luckily, many of them are not out yet. That helps a bit! When my books come in, though, I usually have to make some tough decisions on which ones to read and which to send back. But it’s a nice problem to have. 🙂

      • Rebecca Foster says:

        52 holds?! That’s dangerous. I’m only allowed 15 on my account (because that is technically the borrowing limit for books — though I’ve discovered through trial and error that the self-service machines will let you borrow up to 30 😉 )

      • Naomi says:

        We used to sort of have limits (even then they were bigger than yours), but since our new system was put in place last year, everything is limitless!! But, yes, very dangerous. Lol

  5. wadholloway says:

    I’m very poorly read in Can.Lit. I love that your daughter’s lecturer included Le Guin. Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber had Indigenous tree dwellers which reminded me of the theme at least of The Word for World is Forest.

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